House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell already face a daunting September, with deadlines looming to avoid a government shutdown and debt default. Now they’ll likely have to add a multibillion-dollar aid package to the list to address the devastation from Hurricane Harvey.
Officials won’t have a grasp on losses for weeks to come, but President Donald Trump said Monday that he will soon request disaster relief from Capitol Hill.
“I think you’re going to see very rapid action from Congress, certainly from the president. You’re going to get your funding,” Trump said at a news conference. “I’ve already spoken to Congress, and everybody feels for you.”
For their part, GOP congressional leaders aren’t yet giving concrete signs on how they might swoop in with assistance, but they could attach an emergency spending package to a continuing resolution needed to fund the government.
“We will help those affected by this terrible disaster,” said Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong, adding that the first step in that process is a formal request for resources from the administration.
Some conservative Republicans are likely to balk at any increased spending, as they have after previous natural disasters — which could further inflame the conflict between the likes of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus and GOP leadership. Freedom Caucus officials didn’t respond to a request for comment on disaster relief, nor did several Texans in the group.
Still, divvying up some extra cash could actually ease leadership’s legislative woes.
“There’s a huge amount of political pressure. You can’t vote against this,” says David Inserra, a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “So there’s going to be pressure to put money out there, whether it’s in a supplemental or a CR.”
The thinking is that the extra element of Harvey funding could actually be a boon for GOP leaders who were already planning to ditch their most conservative flank on key fiscal votes and who have long been resigned to needing Democrats to get must-pass spending legislation to the president.
“The wise thing to do would be to attach it to the CR. It avoids the shutdown fight,” said a defense lobbyist who works on appropriations, adding that bundling Harvey funds with the typically toxic vote to raise the debt limit could also be advantageous.
Besides solidifying support from the minority party, the disaster money could guarantee support from the Texas delegation — the largest GOP contingent in Congress, with 25 Republicans — as well as other Republicans who want to support disaster relief, even if they don’t like the underlying spending measures.
“The political need to sweeten a vote could take precedence,” said a senior Democratic aide. “A lot of Republicans are going to want to vote for it.”
For Trump, decades of political precedent suggest the commander in chief show unwavering support for recovery efforts — or risk the kind of criticism George H.W. Bush fielded after Hurricane Andrew struck Florida in 1992 and the heat George W. Bush took in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“Recovery will be a long and difficult job, and the federal government stands willing and able,” Trump said on Monday. “Every asset at my command is at the disposal of local officials.”
As Ryan’s office noted, the onus is on the Trump administration to first detail a disaster relief request, as President Barack Obama did in asking for $60.4 billion in supplemental funding nine days after Hurricane Sandy decimated much of the country’s Eastern Seaboard in 2012.
Whether Republican leaders decide to pair such a request with a bill to keep the government funded beyond Sept. 30 or a broader funding package expected in December could put Trump in a tough spot.
The president has threatened to shut down the government if Congress doesn’t begin to fund a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, but Democrats are resisting and could effectively dare him to veto a spending bill with Harvey aid.
“It certainly complicates the president’s decision,” said a senior Democratic aide, adding that it could also give Trump “an out” to abandon his ultimatum in the short term.
Trump insisted Monday that his shutdown threats and support for hurricane assistance won’t conflict.
“I think it has nothing to do with it,” he said. “I think this is separate.”
Democrats stand ready to pounce if the president reneges on his commitment to helping Texas and its neighboring states recover from Hurricane Harvey.
“I’m interested to see whether the administration will put its money where its mouth is in terms of making sure that we’re putting the resources into FEMA and those other federal agencies that have the responsibility for the cleanup when the cameras are gone,” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) told reporters Monday.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency says the storm’s rampage is “quickly drawing down the remaining balance” in the agency’s dwindling cache of disaster assistance funding.
With $3.3 billion left in the Disaster Relief Fund, FEMA is expected to soon switch to full emergency mode, pinching pennies on other projects to make the money last for response to Harvey.
Harris took aim at Trump’s budget proposal to slash FEMA funding by $667 million in the coming fiscal year. The president shrugged off similar critiques Monday, saying “FEMA money is relatively small compared to the rebuilding” and that he expects Congress to “very quickly” deliver on “many billions of dollars.”
Determining the total cost of recovery will take “months more than weeks,” said Tim Frazier, faculty director for the emergency and disaster management program at Georgetown University.
Frazier added that money will be wasted over the long haul if there is a rush to rebuild without improving infrastructure to lessen the blow of future disasters.
“Are we just going to dump a bunch of money to rebuild and recover? We obviously weren’t ready for the event,” he said.
Meanwhile, current recovery funding will be spent quickly, said Nick Crossley, vice president of the International Association of Emergency Managers. And any emergency spending Congress provides may have to last communities for a while.
“You could very well have to ask for a supplemental by the end of the fiscal year,” Crossley said. “And then, that supplemental may have to carry.”
David Siders and Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.
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